How a Mysterious Letter Led to Juan Luna's Lost Paintings and Letters
Juan Luna—celebrated artist and friend of Jose Rizal, brother to General Antonio Luna—has always been a dark and enigmatic figure, especially compared to his contemporaries. The fact that he killed his wife and went to prison isn’t something widely taught to school children. And the story of his ill-fated marriage to Paz Pardo de Tavera is just one of the blood-red strokes in the canvas that is his life.
Luna is known for his historical and academic paintings, the most famous of which is Spoliarium that won him gold medals and international fame at Madrid’s Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884. The year after, he painted A Do… Va La Nave? (Where The Ship Will Go?) and it was thought to be lost forever – possibly part of the collection of the Pardo de Taveras which was destroyed when they cut ties with him.
And just when art historians thought that they had lost this masterpiece, a mysterious email was received by Salcedo Auctions, one fine April day in 2015. The subject title simply read, “Luna?”
Ramon Lerma, Salcedo Auctions’ Director, was intrigued. He opened the email with anticipation and hesitation, having been used to receiving all sorts of emails from around the world.
What he saw gave him goosebumps. It was the painting of a boat that carried elegantly-frocked women and soldiers to an unknown destination. One woman, wearing ballerina’s clothes, was lying on her back while holding onto the ledge of the boat for dear life as she and her companions voyaged through tumultuous, turquoise waters. It reflected the genre scenes and style of French impressionists which Luna picked up during his nine-year stay in Paris. Could this be the lost painting?
A Do...Va La Nave?
The Neglected Heirloom
The email came from a teacher in Cordoba, Argentina. He received the painting as an heirloom from his grandparents. His grandfather, Jose Domingo, received it as a gift from his friend, media tycoon Goar Mestre, who brought the painting with him from Cuba when he fled the country. Domingo and his wife had the painting in the family since the ‘50s.
Domingo’s grandchildren were cleaning around their house when one of them thought that the painting’s frame could make a good encasement for a mirror. When they removed the frame, they saw the artist’s signature. It simply said, “Luna.”
The teacher Googled the name, hoping to learn of the artist of the painting he knew so well since his childhood days. He found out about Juan Luna—painter, sculptor, and heroic figure of the Philippine Revolution.
So he contacted Salcedo Auctions, the only internationally recognized auction house in the Philippines. He thought that the painting could be of some value and use in the Philippines, instead of it sitting around their house without a frame to stand on. And that’s how Lerma came to receive the email.
Back in the Philippines, Lerma and his team started to work on verifying whether the painting was an authentic Luna.
“In addition to the strong provenance of the work, Salcedo Auctions verified the painting on the basis of its style, art historic documentary evidence of the existence of the painting, and the physical inspection of the painting – the type of canvas and stretcher used, paints, pigments, etc.” Lerma told Esquiremag.ph.
They also came up with several theories on how the painting arrived in Cuba when it was thought to have originated from Paris.
One theory is that it must have come from Felix Pardo de Tavera, the brother of Paz, who lived for some time in Buenos Aires with his Argentinian wife. Another possible story is that it must have been brought by one of Luna’s influential and political friends, such as Governor General Ramon Blanco, who frequently traveled to Spain and Cuba.
“One other theory that has come to light, and perhaps the most plausible, was that the main model in the painting, who appears in many of Luna's works, was a 'lady of the night' who was known to have a Cuban doctor-client. This perhaps explains how the painting travelled from Paris to Cuba,” Lerma explained.
A photo of Luna seated painting 'A Do Va La Nave'. Note the model and Spoliarium in the background.
When Salcedo Auctions announced the authenticity of the painting and its following sale, the public reaction had been extremely positive.
“The timing could not have been more ideal as the auction and preview took place around the time the blockbuster film 'Heneral Luna' (brother of Juan Luna) was showing. The announcement of the discovery of the artwork was covered in the major dailies, and on television,” Lerma said.
The discovery of the painting caused a buzz in the art world, with some scholars and critics saying it was the most feminist work of Luna, despite his troubled history with the opposite sex.
In an interview with ABS-CBN, Lerma said that it was because the seven women on the boat outnumbered the two men. It also showed women in different capacities—a scholar, a musician, a dancer, a bride.
The auction was held on September 19, 2015 at the Rockwell Tent in Makati City. The Luna painting had a published estimate of Php 9,000,000 to 12,000,000. Bidding opened at Php 6,000,000 but when the painting was sold, it set the Philippine record for the highest price achieved for an artwork at auction. It sold at a hammer price of Php 40,000,000. With the buyer's premium, the total sale price was Php 46,720,000.
“The venue was SRO and comprised mostly local collectors as well as the general public who were all interested to see what would happen to the painting with the great publicity it had received,” Lerma recounts.
The winning bidder is a very low-key local collector in his sixties who is committed to Philippine art, Lerma said, adding that the bidder wanted the painting to stay in the Philippines.
Of course, Salcedo Auctions was used to having Luna paintings in their collection. Before A Do… Va La Nave? they have sold several Luna paintings, both of which were thought to be lost. One was discovered in Switzerland, the other in the home of a family that had ties to Luna.
“The existence of the first was verified by a photo in the Frick Art Library collection showing the artist with the painting in his Paris studio, while the second had been photographed in the early 20th century, was published in the Luna book, and was identified as being lost,” Lerma explains.
Salcedo Auctions discovered and verified both artworks. The first was Aesop after Velasquez which sold for over Php 18,000,000; while the second one, measuring roughly 8 x 10 inches was titled A Farm House and sold for almost Php 5,000,000.
Aesop after Velasquez
A Crime of Passion
So why are there so many lost Luna paintings? Aside from the obvious reason that he had gifted some to friends who traveled all around the world, it was also because of his turbulent time in Paris.
The year was 1886. Luna had just come to Paris and met old buddy Rizal, as well as the Pardo de Taveras, a wealthy political family from the Philippines who were on self-exile to avoid a possible persecution from anti-reform Spaniards. The Pardo de Taveras opened their home to the ilustrados or intellectual community and this is where Rizal and Luna met the Pardo de Tavera siblings – Trinidad and Felix who became their close confidants, and Paz, the family’s prized daughter.
Paz was not your typical Filipina,—a far cry from Rizal’s Maria Clara. Having lived abroad all her life, she was sophisticated, enchanting, and dressed as elegantly as any Parisian girl.
After a whirlwind romance, the 29-year old Luna and the 21-year old Paz married in September, 1886. Paz’s mother, Dona Juliana Gorricho, was opposed to the match but her brothers, who were friends of Luna, convinced her otherwise. The couple had their honeymoon in Venice and Rome and a year after, Andres or Luling, their eldest, was born.
Paz, who was accustomed to a certain lifestyle, was soon disillusioned. After a miscarriage, she also realized that an artist’s earnings are not enough to support a household. The family had to move to a smaller house in 26 Villa Dupont, 48 Rue Pergolese in Paris.
Juliana, taking pity on her child, decided to stay with them so she could help take care of her grandson and contribute to the finances. It came to a point when Doña Juliana was paying for almost everything, including the tuition fee of Antonio, Luna’s brother who stayed with them as a house guest during that time.
Soon, Paz was pregnant again and eventually gave birth to a daughter named Maria, nicknamed Bibi, who died at the tender age of three.
It was Bibi’s death that proved pivotal to the story. Luna was inconsolable and Paz’s health declined, so much so that her doctors recommended she take a vacation to improve her health. She went to Mount Dore, known for its hot springs. There she met an older, much more sophisticated man, the 55-year old Monsieur Dussaq. Though it was never proven whether Paz’s relationship with Dussaq was romantic or purely platonic, Luna’s reaction was unmistakable. He got jealous. Jealous enough that he reportedly spied on her wife and beat her a few times because of this supposed “affair.” Doña Juliana and her sons were there to stop the beatings but they only got worse.
Finally, on September 23, 1892, after another fight, Luna forced his way into a room where Paz and Doña Juliana were hiding with Andres. There, he shot the women point blank in front of his son. Doña Juliana died on the spot. Paz was rushed to the hospital, where she died 11 days later. Felix, who tried to intervene, received chest wounds.
The community was scandalized. Luna was arrested and kept in the Mazas Prison where he awaited his trial. The Pardo de Taveras, who had several of Luna’s paintings, reportedly destroyed them all. Were all of his masterpieces truly lost? No one knows for sure.
What certainly survived, however, was Luna’s correspondence during his time in prison. It was addressed to a person in power which could be a clue as to why the painter avoided a death sentence and why he received special treatment during his time in incarceration.
The Ominous Letters
Luna spent several months in the Mazas Prison until his trial in February the next year. A letter written by him in his cell surfaced recently. Salcedo Auctions also got ahold of this letter, which was consigned to them by a Spanish collector who acquired it from the archives of the Minister of Justice of that time. There is no record of another letter written by Luna in this time of his life, when he was imprisoned due to the murder of his wife and mother-in-law.
The letter reads in full:
Prisión de Mazas a 9 de Diciembre 1892,
Excelentísimo Sr. D. Ezequiel Ordoñez,
Mi distinguido amigo:
He recibido sus dos atentas cartas como así también la del Sr. Director de Instrucción Pública.
Muchísimo me alegraré que el Sr Ministro no se olvide de mí, y a V Sr Ordóñez no sé como agradecerle lo mucho que hace por este desgraciado.
Mi causa pasará probablemente hacia mediados del mes de Enero y a pesar de mi tristísima situación casi prefiero esperar resignado y paciente el año nuevo pues le aseguro a Vd. que este ha sido para mí un año nefasto y estoy deseando que desaparezca lo más pronto posible del almanaque.
A mi Andresito le veo tres veces por semana, gracias a la bondad de mi Juez que a la verdad, se ha portado como un verdadero caballero. Cuando vuelva a esa le llevaré este resto de mi destruida familia para que conozca a los suyos y pueda jugar con ellos.
Con la esperanza de verle pronto agradeceré infinito sus grandes servicios y con esta ocasión se repite siempre de Usted, su agradecido y desgraciado amigo ...
Most Excellent Sr. D. Ezequiel Ordoñez,
My distinguished friend;
I have received your two attentive letters as well as that of the Director for Public Instruction.
Very much I will be glad that Mr. Minister does not forget me and, Mister Ordoñez I do not know how much to thank you for what you do for this unfortunate man.
My trial will probably be held towards the middle of next January and despite my sad situation, I almost prefer to wait resigned and patient this New Year because I can assure you that this has been a disastrous year for me I am looking forward to see it disappear off the calendar.
I see my Andresito three times a week, thanks to the kindness of my Judge who has really behaved like a true gentleman.
When I get back to that one, I’ll take this rest of my destroyed family so I ll meet yours and he will play with them.
Hoping to see you soon I will thank infinitely for your great services with this occasion I will remain always of You grateful, your unfortunate friend
The consignor, in his correspondence with Lerma, was also keen enough to investigate the identity of Ezequiel Ordoñez.
He was born in 1843 in Villa de San Miguel in Pontevedra. He had an important influence in the towns of Galicia and Bajo Miño. It was also said that Ordoñez proposed that the Luna and Paz meet in Galicia, Vigo City, where they could reconcile. However this plan did not push through because of the murder.
Ordoñez was an important political figure of the late 19th Century. He was a deputy, lawyer, and senator. He was also the Subsecretary or right hand man of the Minister of Overseas Affairs, who was mainly dedicated to the affairs of the colonies.
The politician also stayed for some time in the Philippines by 1890. He married a mestiza of the country, a certain Juana María Lecaroz Anareta.
“The friendship between Juan Luna and the politician seems in this way to come from old, very likely from the Philippines,” the consignor wrote, adding that the letter implies several things.
One, that Juan Luna was a character of the first magnitude. He was in contact with great political figures of the time and his relationship with the Queen Regent is well known.
Two, he enjoyed certain privileges in prison not considered for other inmates. It is known that his cell in Mazas prison was very wide, it was very bright, and that he could paint his canvases. His son Andrés—who was then tutored and cared for by his brother, General Antonio Luna—visited him 3 times a week.
“He knew perfectly well that his judgment would soon be held. He is mistaken in the date by very little, in the end it takes place in February of 1893,” the consignor continues to write.
He also took note of the use of the subjunctive in some verbs, which implies that, “Juan Luna knew clearly that despite the very serious crimes, thanks to his good friends, he was going to be released soon.” The consignor noted that this is because Luna used statements such as, "When I return I will take the rest of my family," and "Hoping to see you soon.”
If these were true, then the letter is pretty damning evidence that Luna had his way with the justice system and escaped punishment. Despite this, Luna would not escape his own death for long.
In December 3, 1899, Luna traveled to Hong Kong to stay with Mariano Ponce in the wake of the revolution. He arrived “in good health” as written by Ponce to Ferdinand Blumentritt. Two days later, he caught what seems to be a cold and took some medicine. Two days later, he was dead.
The doctors said it was a heart attack, but many suspect, including his own brother, the toxicologist Jose Luna, that he was poisoned. Some even say that the Pardo de Taveras had a hand in this strange death, a kind of delayed justice for their murdered sister and mother. Others believe that it has to do with the revolution, that Juan could prove to be equally troublesome as his brother Heneral Antonio, who was killed just months before.
The reason continues to evade us until today. All we have now are pieces of the puzzle—paintings, a letter, the latter of which has arrived in the Philippines in January 2018 and is being kept by Salcedo Auctions. Lerma plans to sell it on March 10 in their office in Makati City, together with a rare book called Epistolario del Painter Juan Luna, written by the great researcher José Policarpio Bantug.
It is a small book that reproduces some of Juan Luna’s letters to personages of the time, including missives about the great Exhibition of Paris of 1889.
“Besides being personally dedicated by the author, it contains an exhaustive analysis by Adelina Gurrea of the graphology in the writing of Juan Luna, highlighting its marked passionate character,” the consignor wrote.
As Lerma and the rest of his team prepare for the auction, including the accepting of consignments for their next sale of “Important Philippine Art” scheduled on March 10, they can only hope that these curious items, these lost Luna artifacts, will shed light on the painter’s short life and mysterious death.